“You are so inspiring!”, they exclaim in that condescending tone, thoroughly unaware of the nuances and uninteresting bits of life with a disability. This phrase, heard all too commonly, reduces the complexity of human existence to one vague, blanket adjective. Inspiring can be a well-meaning descriptor for disabled people but has deeply problematic implications about how our society views disability. Personally, I have always fought the idea that someone in my situation should be considered inherently exceptional for simply living their life. Long before I was ever involved with activism or heard phrases like “Inspiration Porn”, I felt uncomfortable being put on a pedestal for being disabled.
As a child, I found it difficult adjusting to being disabled; Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy not only weakened my muscles, but it also changed how people perceived me. I began to be seen, by adults mostly, as a brave kid battling a heartbreaking incurable illness, instead of just a regular child who happened to be disabled. Whether I knew it or not, being considered heroic went hand in hand with the pity, I so vehemently detested. My avoidance of this inspirational label was often mistaken for humility but I legitimately found it to be unsettlingly. It was a very liberating experience years later, when I finally realized that others in the disabled community felt the same way and that there were legitimate reasons for this feeling.
Life as a disabled person is filled with barriers, most stemming from a lack of accessibility and understanding. The constant struggle to fit into a world not designed with you mind, both physically and socially, can have a very othering effect. Continually being viewed as an object of inspiration just adds to that feeling of separation, it can be dehumanizing in it’s own way. Being told by an abled person that you are inspiring, is much like the complement equivalent of a participation medal. It is a generally well-intentioned gesture but is ultimately hollow and self-serving for the person giving it out. The view that we are intrinsically excellent for merely existing often lessens our actual achievements.
This knowledge that people will see you as inspirational no matter what you do, can actually create the feeling that no accomplishment is ever good enough. As a child, I often overextended myself, beyond what was even healthy, because of an internal necessity to prove my capabilities. This perpetual chip on my shoulder, while motivating, made me very hard on myself when it came to things such as school work and socializing. I have since learned fighting the inspirational trope doesn’t need to come at the expense of self-esteem, we should take pride in the lives we have. Not all disabled people need to be billionaires or astrophysicists to have value, we just simply don’t want our only value to be uplifting non-disabled people.
Culturally, being disabled is still widely viewed as a singularly negative experience which leads many to rationalize this perceived suffering as a reason to be more appreciative in their own lives. Success can certainly be harder to attain in this largely ableist world, however, that does not mean disabled existence inherently terrible. Physical and intellectual impairments are simply another form of human diversity that deserves to be respected. When we achieve something, it is not our disabilities that we overcome but rather the obstacles set by a society that views us as separate from the rest of humanity. Most of us who are disabled would much rather be accommodated than worshipped.